The Rajya Sabha CAS debate: A Report

NEW DELHI: The cable TV (Network) Regulation Amendment Bill 2002, was passed in the Rajya Sabha, Upper House of the Indian parliament, with a minimum of opposition through a voice vote. In fact, 15 out of the 16 speakers came out in support of the Bill during the discussion.

Information & broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj also expressed hope that the implementation of the CAS Bill would encourage many pay channels to become free-to-air. She welcomed the decision of the Star Network to drop the subscription prices and added that many others would follow suit.

Star's act would seem to be a timely one as it earned the approval of many members of parliament, who probably have not gone deeper into the price reduction gambit.

(See's news analysis on Star's price reduction: Star drops rates - with riders )

Surprisingly, the Congress party, which had expressed its reservation on the Bill earlier in Rajya Sabha through its vocal member lawyer Kapil Sibal, supported the Bill and the changes that were being sought to be effected through CAS. Sibal, however, seemed to be absent from the House during the debate on CAS.

The positive tone was set by the first speaker in Rajya Sabha, L.M. Singhvi of the BJP, who said CAS would benefit the consumers immensely.

The lone voice of opposition was that of Communist Party of India (Marxist) whose representative, Nilotpal Basu expressed his apprehensions and reservation on the Bill. Basu, in his speech, constantly wondered the reason why the government was in a "tearing hurry" to pass the Bill. he felt that ideally the Bill should have been referred to the Standing Committee on IT & telecom. Basu also said the government was enabling introduction of analog set-top boxes whilst simultaneously moving towards a Convergence legislation that would allow digital technology.

Pointing out that his party was opposed to the Bill in its present format, Basu said that he felt that the Bill would vest sweeping powers with the government in deciding what people should watch or not watch. But he felt that the government had failed to address the issue of "quality of a cable service and cartelisation of cable operators" which could eventually cause inconvenience to consumers.

Coming down heavily on the government for trying to push through the bill, Basu stated that he was at a loss to understand why the government was creating a situation where the consumer would have to pay for a STB. Basu felt that this would add to the consumer's existing heavy burden. Also the consumer might face the possibility of not knowing what to do with the STB as and when the Communications Commission of India, the super regulator envisaged in the Convergence Communications Bill 2001, comes into being.

However, I&B minister Sushma Swaraj allayed the fears by pointing out that Cetma, the apex body for consumer electronics goods manufacturers, had informed her that an increase in demand for STBs would bring down the costs. 

"As per Cetma's estimates, if one lakh STBs are manufactured, then the cost would be around Rs

2,500, while if 10 lakh STBs are being manufactured, then the cost would be Rs 1,500, " the minister added whilst referring to her previous discussions with Cetma.

However, Basu added, "The Standing Committee has already submitted its report on the Convergence Bill and the government at the same time is trying to push through CAS through an amendment in the Cable Act which will get redundant when CCI comes into being."

Basu also expressed a fear that in a post-CAS scenario a situation might arise wherein a number of FTA channels might not find a place in the basic tier of service due to the limited bandwidth that was available.

"Since the government may assume powers to decide on which channels will go where, this goes against the very grain of the fundamental right of speech," Basu said. "The present amendments are aimed at pushing through analog technology which has inherent deficiencies and can be tampered with," he added.

Pointing out that if the Bill fails to address the issue of under-declaration by cable operators, a charge that has been leveled by broadcasters, Basu emphasised, "The dispute between channel providers and cable operators will continue. I fail to understand the purpose of this Bill."

Taking off the CPM's known stand and garb of socialism, Basu said the (proposed) legislation was based on a false premise and internationally STBs were not mandated as such things were decided by market forces. "For a change I support the theory that the market forces drive things instead of being mandated (by the government)," Basu said.

However, Swaraj later made light of this comment by saying that Basu was a person supporting market forces, while his party had always opposed market forces.

Considering Swaraj's stance on upholding the rights of women, it also came as no surprise that most of the women MPs in Rajya Sabha supported CAS and the effort put in by Swaraj in getting the consumer his due.

Saroj Dubey of Rashtriya Janata Dal wanted the government to provide free STBs to MPs. She added that CAS would end the "dadagiri" (monopoly) of pay channels, headquartered abroad, which just believed in "fleecing the consumer."

She also suggested, while participating in the debate on CAS, that the frequent increase in subscription money by channels should be "reined in" and that the government should look into the issue of having a uniform policy on subscription (of pay channels).

While admitting that buying STBs might put an additional financial burden on average consumers, Dubey wondered whether the government was considering a proposal to subsidise the STBs.

Flaying some serials aired on private satellite channels ("saas-bahu serials to kalank hai naari jati per aur who channels ban kar dena chaiye," she mentioned at one point), Dubey also said that the government should look into the programming aired on channels like MTV, B4U and FTV that were against the Indian culture and were a "polluting factor for the youth."

"If programmes on DD Metro is (sic) improved, then the fleecing by pay channels can be stopped," she added.

Another woman MP, Maya Singh of the BJP, went to the extent of saying that Swaraj had really understood the "true feelings" of the people, especially the middle class whose monthly budget had gone haywire due to the high cable subscription rates, which in certain places, were as high as Rs 360 per month.

She went to the extent of saying that the basic tier of service should be 'adequate" for the middle class" and that the Bill was a "revolutionary" one.

Though Congress member Subbarami Reddy did not oppose the Bill, he did raise some points that he thought would make Swaraj uncomfortable. "The minister must clarify why there is a controversy over this Bill," Reddy said. Swaraj later replied that there was "no controversy around" the Bill.

It was the young B. J. Panda, a BJP member of the Parliament from Orissa, who was the most articulate of the lot as he supported the moves on CAS.

"This will have far reaching impact on the four crore (40 million) cable TV homes and also on government revenues," he said, pointing out that the Bill empowered the consumers with multiple choice.

Quoting Tam viewership and television data and other figures collated from international markets, Panda pointed out that during 1998 and 1999, not many channels were pay channels. However, Panda mentioned that between 1999 to 2002, the "increase in the price of pay channels has been 1400 percent."

"I am not blaming the broadcasters for charging for world class content and they should also have the freedom to do so. But the consumer should also have the freedom of choice (to pay only for what he wants to see)," he said.

According to Panda, the data that he had collected showed that 55 per cent of Indian consumers watched FTA channels, while the rest watched pay channels and, hence, FTA channels should be given more importance.

He also admitted that globally CAS was never mandated and the content vendor (broadcasters) and the distributors(cable ops) had to work together for the betterment of the industry in order to ensure that the consumer didn't suffer. "It is only in India that the vendors and distributors are at loggerhead, while the consumer suffers," he added.

Admitting that the under-declaration by cable operators, as alleged by broadcasters, was a problematic issue, Panda, like a filmi hero, said, "There are villains all across, but only two victims --- the consumer and the government. The consumer is fleeced by the industry, while the government loses out on revenue in the form of less entertainment and service tax."

In her reply to Rajya Sabha, at the end of over three hours of debate today, Swaraj profusely thanked the members of parliament for supporting a cause that would "benefit the consumers immensely."

The minister also allayed fears that the government was "not mandating technology." She also stated that the prices of the pay channels would be decided by the broadcasters themselves in response to the queries that had been raised by quite a few members.

She added that the government wouldl only determine that there was an adequate number of FTA channels in the basic tier and also that all genre of programming was represented in the basic tier.

"All that I am saying is that FTA channels would be part of the basic tier, the maximum price of which will be decided by the government, while the pay channels are free to fix their own rates," Swaraj said, adding that both the cable operator and broadcaster would also have to display the "individual price of each channel for the benefit of the consumer" and not take refuge behind the bouquet price.

Elaborating on the responsibilities that the government is taking on in a post-CAS Swaraj stated that the Bill sought to provide for:

·* Empowering the Government to mandate through notification, in a phased manner, installation of addressable systems for viewing pay channels;

·* 'Free-to-air' channels in the areas thus notified,to continue to be received by the subscribers in the existing receiver sets without having to go through the addressable systems;

· *A provision that the subscriber would not be required to change the receiving set irrespective of the channels that he wishes to receive and tp provide that he would be free view the channels from amongst those offered by the cable service providers;

·* The flexibility for adoption of technological advancements and upgradation in the addressable systems and to provide that the technical standards and performance parameters of the systems would be laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standard, from time to time;

·* The Government to prescribe, from time to time, the maximum amount to be paid by the subscriber to the cable service provider for the 'basic service tier'consisting of the bouquet of notified 'free-to-air' channels and to determine the number of channels to be included in this 'tier' and the maximum cost for the same in different States/cities/areas of the country, from time to time; and 

·* Effective enforcement of the amendments, violations

of which would constitute a cognizable offence.

The Government had been monitoring the implementation of the Cable TV (Network) Regulation Act and taking corrective measures as and when considered necessary. Amendments were made in the Act in the year, 2000, vide, The Cable Television (Network) Regulations Amendment Act, 2000.

In recent months, there has been a great public outcry against frequent and so-called arbitrary hike in the cable subscription charges.

A government statement, released by the Press Information Bureau today, said that the subscription rates were being fixed arbitrarily by broadcasters and cable service providers in almost an area specific monopolistic distribution system and the subscribers had no choice to ask and pay for the channels they wished to view.

The statement mentioned that there was no legal or administrative instrument by which the government could intervene and regulate the subscription charges or ask the cable service providers to transmit/retransmit television signals through any addressable system which would enable the recording of actual viewership. This led to under-reporting of the number of subscribers by the cable service providers, Multi Service Operators (MSOs) and broadcasters, which, in turn, is also affecting revenues due to the Government.

Besides mandating the viewing of pay channels through an addressable system, the Government would notify from time to time and place to place, the subscription of the basic tier of free-to-air channels, since the primary objective was to ensure that every subscriber received a minimum number of free-to-air channels at reasonable cost.

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